“Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment” by the Rev. Craig Lemming
In the name of God: Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Beloved friends, at long last, it is with immense joy, elation, relief, and profound gratitude that I can finally greet you officially as your Associate Rector! Grace and Peace to you! For those I have not met yet, my name is Craig Lemming and I am delighted that my immigrant status as a Religious Worker was successfully transferred here to St. John the Evangelist from St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church in Minneapolis where I was privileged to serve as their Transitional Deacon and then as their Curate. I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to the clergy and staff who worked tirelessly with an expert immigration lawyer to prepare our successful petition. I have so eagerly waited to begin living out my vocation to serve as the Associate Rector in this marvelous faith community and I give praise and thanks to God that our long vigil of waiting, watching, hoping, and praying has ended; and that this new season of our life together can begin again.
I am delighted that the Syrophoenician Woman appears in this morning’s appointed Gospel. Within her historical-cultural context of the first century, the Syrophoenician Woman’s triple-maligned otherness – being a woman, being a Gentile, and being of Syrophoenician heritage – make her an icon for those of us who have been marginalized by dominant culture. Society has sadly compromised the dignity of every human being by refusing to embrace the sacredness of life that thrives as a vast, dynamic, and kaleidoscopic spectrum of races, genders, sexualities, abilities, ages, nationalities, and social classes. All my life, I have known in my flesh, that many people, not all people, but many people believe that I am not worthy of my full human dignity simply because of who I am. This vicious political era in which we currently live has uncovered the truth: that the evils of racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, ageism, xenophobia, and classism are still our cultural norms. Generations of fellow marginalized people have always known this to be true; but until now, perhaps this truth was not fully appreciated in the collective social consciousness of all American citizens. If you are not male, if you are not white, if you are not straight, if you are not American, if you are poor, if you are differently abled in your mind or in your body, if you are old, if your faith practice is non-Western, if you are illiterate, if you are a victim of poverty, addiction, and violence: many people in this country, not all people, but many consciously or unconsciously believe that you are worth less. To deny the full human dignity with which God Almighty has imbued all of us as beloved creatures of God, each created in God’s divine image, is to afflict ourselves and others with suffering. Sometimes, we all fail to see God in one another.
Today we get a glimpse of racism, sexism, and xenophobia in the full-blooded humanity of Jesus – the fully human and the fully divine Christ. We witness how, even Jesus the Jewish Rabbi, gets caught up in the tribalistic norm of his society. Israelites believed that God’s blessing was primarily for the children of God – the Jewish people – and not for Gentiles. Gentiles like the Syrophoenician Woman were culturally shunned as outsiders and routinely slandered as dogs. Even though publicly slandering a woman as a dog is quite normal for the current president of this country and the former dictator of my country, it is shocking to think that Jesus would participate in that same sort of cruel slander.
a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about [Jesus], and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children (that is, the Israelites) be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs (that is, to Gentiles like you).’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then Jesus said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Even though I was born in independent Zimbabwe, I was not immune to the painful ramifications of the racism and classism that my mixed-race, working class parents had to endure in racially-segregated and racially-oppressive Rhodesia. Rhodesia was not unlike Apartheid South Africa. Indeed, some may argue that Apartheid South Africa is not unlike our life today in the United States of America. In his best-selling book, Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, comedian and host of The Daily Show Trevor Noah writes these words:
The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other. Apart hate, is what it was. You separate people into groups and make them hate one another so you can run them all.
The sobering truth is that the evil genius of apartheid still pervades our lives today. Apartheid-based systems are still separating us into groups and making us hate one another. Instead of cultivating a deep reverence for our particular differences and working to bind us together in the sacred kinship of belonging, many of those in seats of power are enabling the godlessness, hubris, and idolatrous greed of systemic apart-hate to exist, in order to rule us all. How do we respond as people of faith to today’s unkind, cruel, and ugly norms of slander? The Syrophoenician Woman can help us. Her mercurial mind and the fabulous, poetic brilliance of her retort transform the cruel words of spite she receives into a humble, fervent plea for mercy which results in a change of heart, and then wholeness and healing. The Syrophoenician Woman’s faith – her courageous trust in God’s grace, compassion, and mercy – is enshrined in a prayer well-known to Episcopalians and generations of Anglicans globally:
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.
The Prayer of Humble Access is derived from the story of the Syrophoenician Woman in today’s Gospel. While many in dominant culture take issue with the atonement theology that informs this ancient prayer, for those of us who have been marginalized, the Syrophoenician Woman’s Spirit of persistent faith and trust in God’s mercy and her insistence on receiving the benefits of God’s grace is what makes The Prayer of Humble Access one of the most liberating prayers for those who are continually slandered, maligned, and treated worse than dogs. The Syrophoenician Woman insists on being worthy of God’s grace and mercy simply because she is a person too, not a dog. The audacity of her faith and trust in God’s mercy ignites a paradigmatic shift, a change of heart, a metanoia, or a complete and utter return to Ultimate Truth in Jesus Christ himself! This is astonishing! The Syrophoenician Woman’s persistent faith in God’s grace, compassion, and mercy re-clothes Jesus in his rightful mind. Jesus returns to God’s Truth disclosed in the words of today’s Lesson from the Book of Proverbs:
The rich and the poor have this in common:
the Lord is the maker of them all.
Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity,
and the rod of anger will fail.
Those who are generous are blessed,
for they share their bread with the poor.
Do not rob the poor because they are poor,
or crush the afflicted at the gate;
for the Lord pleads their cause
and despoils of life those who despoil them.
When we persist in our faith and trust in God’s grace, compassion, and mercy for all people, we become infectious agents of hope and healing. Jesus’ remarkable encounter with the Syrophoenician Woman leads him to heal a deaf man with an impediment in his speech. After Jesus lays hands on the deaf man, we read,
Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.
When our hearts and minds are opened in trust to listen to one another’s joys and sufferings we become fully present to each other’s ultimate concerns, and we are moved, liberated, and released to speak God’s grace, compassion, and mercy into each other’s lives. I witnessed this Truth on Thursday morning during our Book Group’s discussion of a collection of short stories by people of color called, A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota. Here, as the Church of the Open Door, in faith and trust, we opened our hearts anew to God and to one another.
Pioneering Pastoral Theologian, Anton Boisen believed that each and every human being is “a living human document,” worthy of holy interpretation. As we go forth into the world, when we meet those who society has dehumanized and slandered, I invite you to remember the Syrophoenician Woman’s insistence on God’s grace, compassion, and mercy. Each and every person we encounter is indeed “a living human document” – a tender, sacred story, in the flesh, worthy of our full attention and our reverence. And when we are victims of cruel slander and treated worse than dogs, I often remember my hero, Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s words from his recent interview with Krista Tippett. When Archbishop Tutu was serving a poor parish in Soweto comprised mostly of black domestic workers, he liberated them from the norm of traumatic, racist slander with the Doctrine of the Image of God. In that interview Desmond Tutu describes this, saying,
you see, the white employer most frequently didn’t use the person’s name. They said the person’s name was too difficult. And so most Africans, women would be called “Annie” and most black men really, you were “boy.” And I would say to them, “When they ask who are you, you say, ‘Me? I’m a God-carrier. I’m God’s partner. I’m created in the image of God.'” And you could see those dear old ladies as they walked out of church on that occasion as if they were on cloud nine. You know, they walked with their backs slightly straighter. And, yeah, it was amazing.
In closing, I offer the contemplative words of Howard Thurman, theologian, mystic, philosopher, and spiritual advisor to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
I hear the sound of the genuine in myself and having learned to listen to that, I can become quiet enough, still enough, to hear the sound of the genuine in you.
Now if I hear the sound of the genuine in me, and if you hear the sound of the genuine in you, it is possible for me to go down in me and come up in you. So that when I look at myself through your eyes having made that pilgrimage, I see in me what you see in me and the wall that separates and divides will disappear and we will become one because the sound of the genuine makes the same music.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Genesis 1:26-27.
 Mark 7:25-30.
 Trevor Noah, Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2016), 3.
 The Book of Common Prayer (1979), 337.
 Marion J. Hatchett, Commentary On the American Prayer Book (New York: Seabury Press, 1981, 1980), 382.
 Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23.
 Mark 7:34.
 Anton T. Boisen, The Exploration of the Inner World: A Study of Mental Disorder and Religious Experience (Chicago, New York: Willett, Clark and Company, 1936; New York: Harper & Brothers, 1962), 5.